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We Were There: Part 1 – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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We Were There: Part 1 follows two individuals over the span of many years. During their high school days, Motoharu Yano was the most popular boy in school—he’s a top student, great at sports, and has countless girls confessing their love to him. But he can’t get over the death of his girlfriend from a car crash. Nanami Takahashi falls in love with Motoharu Yano and must deals with his inability to let go of the past as well as come to grips with their own complex relationship.

Based upon the popular manga series by author Yuki Obata, We Were There: Part 1 is the first of two films chronicling the tumultuous relationship shared between Nanami and Motoharu, with this film focusing particularly on their lives as high school students. For those familiar with the young love genre of Japanese filmmaking, We Were There: Part 1 doesn’t exactly attempt to bring that much new to the table. Safely relying upon the traditional tropes of the genre to carry the emotional weight of its two characters and offering audiences a commonplace narrative they’ve viewed in past films or television dramas, the film has one distinguishing quality—it is simply more grandiose in scope than many previous genre-related films. Given its status as a film having two of Japan’s biggest upcoming stars playing the leads, a cumulative 4-hour running time once the second half of the film is released, and a story spanning 10-years in length, one could easily make the case that, once completed, We Were There will in fact claim the title of being the absolute pinnacle of what the young love genre can offer. And with the primary demographic of the film being that of adolescent females, this isn’t exactly saying too much.

But while the film may be predictable in many ways, the driving force behind it resides within its characters. This is especially seen in Toma Ikuta’s portrayal of Motoharu, who is given a character that may appear rather one-dimensional at first—he’s supposedly one of those top students who you never see studying in a film—but delivers a complexity that makes him stand out from many of the superficial characters of similar films. His relationship to Nanami is obviously the selling point of the film, but we slowly begin to see the ramifications of his traumatic past influencing his relationship with her. He is a young man caught between his reluctance to fall in love with her and his obligation to keep hold of the past, which is expressed rather realistically throughout the course of the film.

This approach towards his development as a character presents him as an individual we can sympathize with as an audience, which is a step above many of the trivial characters that plague the genre as a whole. Sadly, this can’t also be said about Yuriko Yoshitaka’s portrayal of Nanami, a character that simply can’t complement the diversity found in Motoharu. It’s not that Yoshitaka doesn’t lend any credibility to her role, but one begins to wonder how her character of Nanami can even relate to Motoharu, which one can unfortunately see falls back upon the whole “opposites attract” notion that is often expressed in other films. Nanami and Motoharu just aren’t really compatible as characters, which isn’t entirely detrimental to their presentation as a couple but is certainly perplexing given their contrasting personalities and weighty narrative. It also doesn’t help that the minor characters in the film are never truly developed as one would hope. We learn very little about Motoharu’s odd relationship to his past girlfriend’s sister Yuri, and his friend Masafumi simply gets delegated to being the typical jealous friend who also likes Nanami, thus evolving into a love triangle. And while these facets of the narrative can be redeemed through part two of the film, it definitely hurts this film as a standalone experience.

And this is where the film stumbles in presenting a plausible love story let alone story. For the most part, the film shows Motoharu and Nanami’s relationship as one of innocence and humor, but it continuously appears as a superficial backdrop to Motoharu addressing his past. This approach puts Nanami, who is supposed to be one of the primary characters of the film, on the backburner as the narrative completely favors Motoharu for a majority of the film’s running time. Yes, we get it that they love each other, but when Motoharu is attempting to deal with some serious mental issues regarding his life, Nanami appears to be but a tagalong only to appease the wish fulfillment of the female viewership. The film also slowly builds up their relationship, which by the film’s end seems all too contrived for it’s own good—one can only hope that the second film rectifies this direction.

But for all the flaws of the narrative, the film does an adequate job with its cinematography. Director Takahiro Miki takes the helm here, brining his background as a music video director to the film and presenting We Were There: Part 1 as a surprisingly beautiful experience from a visual standpoint. From the soft, dreamlike quality of Motoharu and Nanami’s interactions in their classroom, to the wide ocean vistas shots that accompany their walks along the beach, Miki offers an impressive display of talent as a director. With only three films to his name thus far, Miki is primed to be one talented director if he can move outside the saturated realm of the youth love genre and challenging himself with material much more original.

In many ways, We Were There: Part 1 does a surprisingly good job at adapting the manga series into a live-action film. While there are imperfections found in its narrative—not enough believability on part of Motoharu and Nanami’s status as a couple and some rather inconsiderate handling of side characters—the film is directed towards a prime audience, so these flaws may simply be swept aside if the right person watches the film. While We Were There: Part 1 isn’t a great film per se—one can only truly account for its entirety after the second film is released—it will please those looking for some familiarity within their love stories albeit presented in a much more ambitious fashion.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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